(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

John Scotus Erigena’s Treatise on Divine Predestination is the product of religious controversies that raged during the Carolingian renaissance of the ninth century. He wrote it in response to a request by Hincmar, bishop of Rheims, for a refutation of the teachings of Gottshalk of Fulda. Gottschalk, a Saxon monk, stirred up controversy in the West Frankish kingdom of Charles the Bald by teaching that there were two divine predestinations, one toward virtue and salvation and one toward evil and damnation. Concerned that this misinterpretation of Saint Augustine appeared to condone wrongdoing as inevitable and to render attempts at reform futile, Charles summoned a synod of bishops to Quierzy in 849. The synod ordered Gottschalk imprisoned, but his doctrines continued to be propagated despite the efforts of Hincmar and Hrabanus Maurus, the kingdom’s foremost theologians.

Hincmar then appealed to John Scotus Erigena, an Irish scholar. Neither a monk nor a cleric, Erigena was better equipped than any contemporary to evaluate Saint Augustine as a philosopher. Now considered to be the only Western philosopher of any stature between Boethius in the sixth century and Saint Anselm in the eleventh, Erigena had already established a reputation for learning.

The Treatise on Divine Predestination went far beyond simple refutation of Gottshalk’s doctrines. In its nineteen chapters, Erigena addressed broader considerations of good, evil, and the nature of the afterlife. In his emphasis on free will and the essential goodness of human nature, his arguments approached the position of fellow Briton Pelagius, founder of the Pelagian heresy, which maintained that humans were capable of achieving salvation through free will alone, without the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice. The Treatise on Divine Predestination was condemned by French bishops at the Councils of Valence (855) and Langres (859). Detractors referred to it as pultes scotorum, or “Irish porridge.” It passed into obscurity, surviving to modern times in a single manuscript copy. Protected by the patronage of the Frankish king, Erigena continued to write, producing translations from the Greek that introduced Christian Neoplatonism to the Latin-speaking world and an original philosophical work, De divisione naturae (c....

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

McGinn, Bernard, and Willemien Otten, eds. Erigena: East and West. Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1994. A collection of conference papers mostly dealing with the influence of Eastern Christian thought on Erigena; focuses on On the Division of Nature: Book 1.

Mathew, H. C. G., and Brian Harrison, eds. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004. The entry on Erigena contains summaries of his major philosophical works. An invaluable reference for recent scholarship on British historical figures.

Moran, Dermot. “Origen and Eriugena: Aspects of Christian Gnosis.” In The Relationship Between Neoplatonism and Christianity, edited by T. Finan and V. Twomey. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1992. Contains analyses of the philosophy of Origen, Saint Augustine, and Gregory of Nyssa; useful for understanding Neoplatonic concepts of substance and nature.

Moran, Dermot. The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: A Study of Idealism in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Idealism used here in the Platonic philosophical sense: the observable universe as a manifestation of an ideal existing in the mind of God.